HIGH LIFE – Review
For her first English-language film, renowned French director Claire Denis sends Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche into space on a mission to a black hole. Beautiful yet bleak, HIGH LIFE is more contemplative and ambitious than the typical space drama, but it perhaps does not rank among the best works of the 72-year-old innovative auteur director who gave us BEAU TRAVAIL and 35 SHOTS OF RUM.
The director co-wrote the script with Jean-Pol Fargeau. HIGH LIFE opens on a spaceship far out among the stars, with a man (Pattinson) and a baby as the sole survivors. We know there is a backstory to this, and eventually it is revealed in flashback. The film has moments of violence, bursts of sometimes graphic sexuality, and maintains a creepy tension, but it also moves slowly for most of its running time, meditating on the human condition.
The people on this journey through space are certainly not living the high life. They are convicts who have been offered service on a space mission to a distant black hole, as an alternative to their life (or death) sentences. The mission is to gather and transmit back information that might give Earth access to unlimited energy. The trip is long and while a few will serve as crew, most will be test subjects in experiments during the long trip. The convicts have been told they will return after the mission, although that is a lie.
The film grapples with that central deceit early on, in a flashback to Earth where a professor (Victor Banerjee) struggles with society’s guilt over the lie. The truth is that the convicts on the spaceship are traveling near the speed of light, which means they will age very slowly. As they make their very long journey, decades will fly by on Earth. Even if they could return, everyone they know will be long dead.
The science touches are among the film’s most interesting aspects. Besides addressing the way time slows as one approaches the speed of light, HIGH LIFE also depicts what might happen at the black hole’s event horizon.
The creepy side of the script is in what happens along the way, as the convict passengers are subjected to unsettling experiments by the ship’s doctor, also a convict, played chillingly by Binoche.
People going mad in space is not a new idea but Claire Denis uses it in a different way. There are hints of Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS and the 1973 PAPILLON, as Denis combines commentary on society’s treatment of prisoners and a story about on the resilience of the human spirit. It is ambitious stuff although not all of it comes together.
The cast also includes Mia Goth, as an impulsive woman who is unraveling after years in space. The ship is self-sufficient, growing food and recycling air, water and waste, and largely runs itself, with a little help from crew. These convicts never were the most stable people to begin with but the long journey has taken its toll. They are coping, or failing to cope, in various ways. Andre Benjamin plays Tcherny, a gentle man who prefers to spend his time in the shipboard garden, which provides food and oxygen. Other strong performances are provided by Agata Buzek as pilot Nansen and Lars Eidinger as captain Chandra.
In the lead role, Pattinson gives one of his better performances, tamping down his highly emotive style for something a bit more restrained. Pattinson has chosen roles mostly in indie and art-house films since leaving his TWILIGHT film days, with mixed results. This role is a more successful one for him, although it is too far from mainstream for his remaining fans of his early days.
HIGH LIFE has a moody, eerie visual beauty, thanks to cinematographer Yorick LeSaux, and a haunting score, which adds to its sense of tension. The film has a creepiness to it, and it does not quite find the right balance between that element and its more meditative side.
Still, the story about human minds coming undone in space and about about human resilience is admirable and ambitious. The film is full of unexpected twists, just like life, and features a surprisingly satisfying ending.
Fans of art-house films will find this thought-provoking drama more satisfying than mainstream audiences, although it is not Claire Denis’ best. HIGH LIFE has its moments but its mix of slow meditation on the human condition does not entirely gel, and that aspect does not mix as well with the thriller/horror aspects of the story as one might hoped. It is a thought-provoking film but not Denis’ most successful. Mainstream audiences expecting a thriller, as the trailer suggests, will likely be confused by the film’s focus on the passengers’ inner human journey and its social commentary on society’s treatment of prisoners.
HIGH LIFE opens Friday, April 19, at Landmark’s Tivoli Theater and Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars